April 12, 2008

The Community Building Power of Not Knowing

I am a city girl living for the first time in a rural area. A few years ago, I moved to Hallettsville, Texas, a charming little town in South Central Texas. My family's roots are deep in this town. My own roots, however, are very shallow.

As I was preparing to move away from Memphis where I had lived for twenty-five years, I became almost hyper aware of insider-outsider messages. I noticed that at almost every public meeting, someone would begin their comments with "I was born in Memphis" - which I heard as an insider-outsider comment and a heart-breaking reminder that no matter what I did, I would never be an insider there in some people's eyes. I noticed how subtly established leaders pushed newcomers aside - and how often newcomer/outsiders discounted the wisdom behind some "been there/done that" comments of insiders.

When I moved to Hallettsville, I wondered how this insider-outsider dynamic would feel for me here. In just a few minutes of conversation, I can find a family connection with almost everyone in town. I came home to Texas, to the town where my grandparents grew up and where my parents are now living. I've been gratified that the town has generously welcomed me and my New England born husband.

It's my city-girl orientation that sets me apart, however - mainly because my vocabulary and my practical experience is missing so much of what people here know. I recognize various breeds of cattle but know next to nothing about what it takes to raise them. I love farm-fresh eggs, but don't have a clue why they are so different from the eggs sold in the store. Seasonal changes for me are more about fashhion than what I do every day to ensure that my year is profitable. Try as I may to hide it - and I knew better than to offer too many "where I came, we did it this way" suggestions - my city-girl orientation labels me as an outsider here in this rural community.

My interest in this insider-outsider question has become more of a curiosity than an obsession: Where are the road signs that mark the way to common ground where insiders and outsiders both feel welcome?

Believe it or not, this is all background for telling you about my garden.

I live on a corner in one of the oddest houses in town and have a big back yard. This year (and yes, I'm talking about THIS year - spring comes early here) for the first time I have a garden. And, it's right in the corner of the back yard that is visible to all who are passing by, because that's the part of the yard that is sunny and where there is a big patch of open ground. This winter, my husband built some raised beds, I studied a book on "Square Foot Gardening", made a diagram of what I would plant on graph paper, and bought dozens of packages of seeds.

From the very beginning, however, I'm sure that it was blatantly apparent to all who walked and drove by that I'm a gardening novice. I have confessed that at every opportunity when people ask me about my garden and humbly asked for help. I have already planted some things too early and some things too late. I've planted some things that don't grow here without super-human effort. I've planted some things that grow here but are more trouble than they are worth. And we're not yet into garden prime-time.

Here's what's been so amazing to me. While I've assumed that the path to common ground would have something to do with what I know or can do, I've found that there is another path that I never imagined.

As I've become more comfortable with my "not knowing" about gardening, people are showing up to help me in surprising ways. One man in a truck - name not known to me - pulled up to chat and then dropped some onion sets by my door with a note that it was time to put those in. Another person brought over "cages" for the tomato plants that are clearly taking over one side of the garden. Someone else brought baby lettuce plants that they had thinned out from their garden and hated to see go to waste. I've been directed time and time again to "Tiny's" as the best place to buy plants....and that when Tiny gets something in, that means it will grow here and that it's time to plant.

The moral of this story?
  • That the "insider-outsider" divider can show up in many ways, and some of the insiders and the outsiders are looking for paths leading to common ground.
  • That my active and quite public plunge into "not knowing" is creating an unexpected avenue to common ground for me.
  • That my garden is growing a lot more than spring lettuce!
And what does this have to with small grants anyway?
  • The type of small grants that I care about are more and more about insiders and outsiders. Kids and seniors, old-timers and new immigrants, home-owners and apartment dwellers. I'm now more curious than ever about how funders are using grants as opportunities for communities to discover common ground - and what new pathways they are seeing.
  • Those of us in the grant world, with the due diligence that we bring to grant review, often look for people with expertise - those who know. I wonder what new possibilities there might be if we also looked for those who are actively and publicly plunging into "not knowing"in the same way that I plunged into gardening. The risks were there but, in the scheme of things, very, very small and well worth taking.
  • And, from the cat-birds seat that we have as funders, how we can be more active about creating opportunities for those who don't know to find those who do know - and vice versa?

I would love to hear what my story suggests to you. And what you're growing in your garden this spring!

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